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An Opposition Unable to Move On

For the last year and a half Russia has been the scene of numerous street protests. Despite many Russian people being dissatisfied with the “Putin era” and wanting to bring an end to his monopoly of power, however, the opposition is unsure what should replace it.

June 16, 2013 - Paweł Pieniążek - Articles and Commentary



May 6th 2012 has become a symbolic date for the Russian protest movement. It was the day when the first March of Millions protest took place, with violent clashes between the police and demonstrators. Nearly 400 people were arrested as a result and 28 are still facing criminal charges, with most of the opposition leaders enduring repression to various degrees.

The events of May 6th defined further action on the part of the opposition, at the same time giving the government a reason for accusing it of trying to destabilise Russia. This is why on the first anniversary of these events another protest took place which was to demonstrate solidarity with the 28 people still under investigation. However, despite as many as 25,000 to 30,000 demonstrators gathering in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, this number can only to a certain extent be considered a success.

On the one hand, the protest movement has no idea what to do next, and is unable to offer anything new. The same pattern of events has been proposed each time: a protest march followed by a rally where opposition stars deliver speeches that are not particularly interesting to ordinary participants. On the other hand, there is still willingness among the Russian people to take to the streets and show their outrage. They are ever more dissatisfied with today’s politics, but just not sure what to replace it with.

Wave of protests

In 2011, after several months of vague insinuations about who was going to be the next presidential candidate, the most important political tandem in the country announced that Putin was going to run for the office of president for the third time, something which had apparently been decided a long time beforehand. Putin also put it quite bluntly that it should not be the people’s concern. Although the Russian government had been under growing criticism since 2010, this decision seemed to be the last straw for the Russian people.

A wave of protests flooded Russia after the Duma elections of December 4th 2011. Several thousand people demonstrated the following day in the park at Chistye Prudy in Moscow. Even more people gathered on Sakharov Square two weeks later and Bolotnaya Square in February. Political scientists, publicists, journalists, politicians – specifically those connected with the ruling party United Russia – were all amazed; nobody expected yet another electoral fraud to bring about such a tremendous social outrage. These events in Russia could be seen as the last wave of protests that have spread throughout the world starting in 2010.

It all started on December 17th 2010 when a desperate Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. The reason for this tragic decision were his bleak prospects for the future. From then on, Tunisia was flooded with mass protests that were often the scene of violent clashes with the police; the number of dead and injured rose. In the end, Ben Ali’s regime collapsed. Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring reached other countries, spreading to the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The revolutions – varying in violence – took a similar course to those in Tunisia.

As a result, governments in some of those countries had to make concessions to the protesting citizens and we saw the regimes in Egypt, Yemen and Libya suffer the same fate as Ben Ali’s regime. The reasons behind all these demonstrations were similar to what brought about Bouazizi’s self-immolation – authoritative regimes that deprived people of any prospects for a better life. Persisting unemployment, corruption, nepotism and rising prices forced people to take to the streets.

The Arab Spring inspired the Spanish who started the 15-M movement (the name refers to the day it was formed) and the Greeks who had been made to accept radical austerity programmes that pushed the country even deeper into recession. Finally, the protests in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East inspired mass demonstrations in the United States where the Occupy Wall Street movement was formed in order to say “enough” to the bankers who kept making exorbitant amounts of money despite being responsible for the recession.

99 percent versus “crooks and thieves”

The “99 percent versus the 1 percent” – the slogan created by the American Occupy protesters which best defines the reasons behind their demonstrations – describes current societies extremely well: more and more stratified, where the bulk of the world’s wealth belongs to a narrow circle of incredibly rich people. The rest of society remains on the other side – including the middle class which is getting ever poorer after the recession. It is worth noticing that there were a lot of well-educated people among the protesters; those who did not know what to do with themselves despite their education or, to put it differently, those for whom the system did not have anything to offer. The situation felt particularly severe in the US when it turned out that the American Dream no longer worked. According to Aleksandr Bikbov, a sociologist doing research on Russia’s protest movement, the one thing that all the protests of 2011-2012 had in common, was the participation of well-educated people.

Such was the case in Cairo, Spain and the US, but also in Russia. Thus, the old model of a protester, that of a warrior-revolutionary, was replaced by a new one: the warrior-intellectualist, who tends to stay away from political organisations and for whom social media is the major tool for coordinating the movement and the sources of alternative information. What’s more, during most of these protests, there was a tendency to push political organisations to the background.

Yet Russia’s protesters remain quite dispersed and most of their interaction takes place in social media. The main difference between Russia and the other countries that were flooded with demonstrations was the economic situation. As mentioned earlier, the Americans in the Occupy Wall Street movement felt that the American Dream was placed out of their reach; similarly in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain where unemployment, specifically among young people, reached unimaginable numbers. In Russia, however, the ones who demonstrated in the squares of Moscow did not necessarily belong to the middle class – as it became customary to say in the mainstream media – and their main concerns were not strictly financial. Although Russia’s protests were not necessarily caused by financial issues and the movement was not hierarchised in its early phase, they did have symbols and slogans. This included the white ribbons that symbolised honesty pinned to people’s clothing. The main slogan of 2010 was made up by Alexei Navalny, the blogger and lawyer with nationalistic views, who began calling the ruling party United Russia, “The Party of Crooks and Thieves”.

Although the very difficult financial situation of the participants was not what fuelled the protests in Russia, the opposition movement which grew around the slogan proposed by Navalny is quite similar in nature to the one formed by the participants of Occupy Wall Street, who protested against the one per cent of the most privileged citizens – mostly associated with Wall Street bankers. Calling their government “a party of crooks and thieves”, Russians similarly refer to the sense of social injustice.

The “Blue Buckets”, which started in early 2010, was a similar movement where Russian drivers protested against people (most of them connected with the government) who, having paid a sufficient amount of money, could use a blue light on the roofs of their cars and force other drivers to make room for them on the road, awarding them immunity from observing traffic regulations. In both cases, society appealed to the sense of injustice or spoke of the feudal system that should be changed. Their shouts, although hundreds of kilometres away, were identical to the American or Spanish ones.

The machinery of repression

The December 2011 demonstrations happened unexpectedly for the Russian government. As Masha Gessen put it in her book, Putin. The Man without a Face, the government “could use violence, though it doesn’t seem very probable as Putin, in my opinion, does not understand how serious the situation really is … People will have to protest until those in the Kremlin realise what a small and despised minority they constitute – only then are they going to attack, like a cornered animal.”

Initially, the Russian government showed a rather friendly attitude towards the protesters, despite arresting a few people. Gessen might be right in saying that the Kremlin was under the wrong impression thinking that minor compromises on its part would tone down the public feeling of dissatisfaction. A good example of such a policy would be the law liberalising the registration of political parties that was signed into effect by Dmitry Medvedev right before his term ended (from then on only 500 signatures were required to register a party, as opposed to previous 40,000).

The first March of the Millions was a real breakthrough. It was after this first march that more restrictive laws were introduced, such as the public gatherings act which set very high fines, for instance for treading on public lawns. What’s more, aside from making arrests, an investigation into the riots was also launched. Twenty-eight people are under investigation and two have been sentenced respectively to 4.5 and 2.5 years in prison. The 2.5-year sentence was given to Konstantin Lebedev who was alleged, along with other activists of the Left Front (its chairman Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev), to have destabilised the situation in Russia, organising these mass riots with money coming from Georgia. There are also a number of court cases against Alexei Navalny currently under investigation.

Putin’s last term in office?

The long-standing dictatorships in several of the North African countries and in the Middle East finally collapsed, revealing a series of problems that were not so visible during the “stable” times. Governments in the rest of those countries managed to stay in power, either by exerting violence or by making concessions. In the Euro-Atlantic zone we are presented with quite a different situation. Governments also collapsed here, although the protest movement cannot speak of achieving its goals. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev (and editorial board member of New Eastern Europe) notes that the change in government does not necessarily lead to a change in policy. Despite overthrown governments being replaced with politicians who might promise change, they still end up doing exactly what their opponents were criticised for or brought an end to them. Thus, the protesting opposition should look for a solution in building an alternative and more democratic system, rather than simply changing the politicians.

The Russian protest movement falls somewhere between the Arab Spring and the demonstrations in Europe and the US (which is perhaps why it is so rarely presented in the context of other world events of a similar nature). What Russia’s movement brought about was the idea of questioning “one Russia”, in which only Putin and his elites are able to ensure public safety and stability. The protesters in Russia have shown that there are no infallible governments. According to recent studies by the Levada Center, 47 per cent of the Russian population do not want Putin to serve the next term as president. Most Russians still trust him, but this number is slowly and steadily decreasing. And although the demonstrators in Russia might not currently have good solutions or a clear concept of how to change the existing reality, they shouldn’t be ignored by the Kremlin. The government’s arrogance can go only so far – as has already been proved in so many other countries.

Translated by Agnieszka Rubka

Paweł Pieniążek is a Polish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe.

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